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Bonuses on Wall Street surge 14 percent

This might have been one of Wall Street's most dismal years in a decade, but that hasn't stopped bonus checks from rising an average of 14 percent.
Wall Street Bonuses
John J. Mack, the CEO of Morgan Stanley has agreed to forgo his bonus this year to reflect the poor performance Morgan Stanley. Eddy Risch / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

This might have been one of Wall Street's most dismal years in a decade, but that hasn't stopped bonus checks from rising an average of 14 percent.

Four of the biggest U.S. investment banks — Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Bear Stearns Cos. — will pay out about $49.6 billion in compensation this year. Of that, bonuses are traditionally estimated to represent 60 percent, or almost $30 billion.

But that might not sit well with investors who held on to investment bank stocks this year _ and watched them plunge by up to 45 percent. Investment houses have been slammed by the credit crisis, and top executives this past week said they've yet to see a bottom.

Further, some of those executives have even agreed to forgo their bonuses this year to reflect the poor performance. Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne won't be collecting their payouts.

Mack received no cash bonus a year ago but received stock and options worth an estimated $40.2 million, well above his $800,000 base pay. Cayne received a bonus of $33.6 million in 2006 and base pay of $250,000.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein reportedly is in line for a bonus of up to $70 million this year, as the nation's largest investment bank has largely navigated past any mortgage-related losses. Lehman Brothers' CEO Richard Fuld was granted a $35 million stock bonus for 2007, up 4 percent from last year.

There had been some predictions the increase in bonuses would have been significantly higher. However, layoffs and top managers giving up their bonuses have curtailed that.

For the army of bankers and traders on Wall Street, it remains to be seen what their bonus checks will offer when they're handed out over the next several weeks. Top performers will still see some significant compensation as an incentive to not defect, while underperformers will suffer, executives at the banks said.

"If you were to normalize our business ... you would see we had a record year across the whole enterprise," said Morgan Stanley Chief Financial Officer Colm Kelleher.

Morgan Stanley, the second-largest U.S. investment bank, reported compensation rose 18 percent to $16.6 billion from $14 billion a year earlier. This comes after the investment bank reported Wednesday the first quarterly loss in its history amid a $9.4 billion writedown due to the credit crisis.

Bear Stearns, the fifth-biggest securities firm, posted the first loss in its 84-year history on Thursday after a $1.9 billion writedown. It reduced compensation this year by 21 percent to $3.4 billion from $4.3 billion in 2006 — and members of its executive management committee, like Cayne, won't be collecting year-end bonuses.

"Compensation levels need to be maintained to reflect market levels," said Chief Financial officer Sam Molinaro.

At Lehman, compensation rose 9.5 percent to $9.5 billion, with bonuses accounting for an estimated $5.7 billion. The firm booked losses last week but managed to offset most of its mortgage writedowns and beat Wall Street expectations. Head count at the investment bank rose by 10 percent this year.

The bankers in the best position this year are at Goldman Sachs.

The nation's largest investment bank said Tuesday it was able to chalk up another record-breaking year with higher investment banking fees and smart bets on mortgage-backed bonds. It beat fourth-quarter projections.

In response, compensation at Goldman rose 20 percent to $20.1 billion. That means roughly $12 billion has been set aside for bonuses.

Still nervously waiting to find out about bonuses are the employees of Merrill Lynch & Co. The nation's largest brokerage won't report fourth-quarter results until January, and there has been some speculation newly appointed CEO John Thain might shake up the bonus structure.

Thain won't get a year-end bonus since he took the job on Dec. 1 after Merrill Lynch ousted Stanley O'Neal because of significant subprime losses. But he did take home a $15 million cash bonus just for taking the job.